Syria/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Reem Al Khatib, Rana Yazaji, Rana Yazaji

Socio- Cultural Perspective

Modern History of Syria

In 1516, Syria was taken over by the Ottoman Empire; this occupation continued through the following four centuries. This occupation started to wane under the pressure of Arab liberal revolutions in 1916 during the First World War, and came to an end in 1918, when Syria was declared independent under the leadership of King Faisal I. During the two years that followed, in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed by Britain and France during the war, it was decided that Syria would be part of the French territories. In early 1920, French troops landed on Syrian shores, and in 1923 French control of Syria became formalized by the League of Nations' mandate system. The French mandate of Syria lasted until April 17, 1946.

Upheaval and instability were the dominant factors in Syrian politics in both internal and foreign affairs, and the creation of Israel State on the land of Palestine was declared in 1948. March 1949 witnessed the first Syrian coup d'état by Col. Husni al-Za'im. This was soon followed by another overthrow by Col. Sami al-Hinnawi, who was himself quickly deposed by Col. Adib Shishakli, all within the same year.  Shishakli was in power until 1954, when the opposition forced him to resign and leave the country. The following four years were considered the most significant in Syrian history

In 1958, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and Egypt's President Nasser announced the merging of Egypt and Syria, creating the United Arab Republic. The Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was chosen as its Chairman. This union was announced on 28 September 1961, only to fall apart in 1963, when the Baath Arab Socialist Party led another coup known as the “March Revolution”. As a result, the Baath party came to power and stayed in control until 2011 when the Grassroots movement started. 

Since 2011, and through the process of writing this report, the Syrian regime has been in confrontation with this movement for 43 months. The movement caused significant changes to Syria’s political, economic, social and humanitarian future. Despite the current efforts and statistics, there is potential for this crisis to evolve into other phases.

The 2014 Presidential elections were the first held since the Baath party’s coming to power. Three candidates ran for President of the Republic, one of whom was Bashar Al Asad who was elected for a new Presidential term for another seven years. Elections were held in areas controlled by the Assad regime with no international monitoring. During the past year, matters in Syria have become increasingly and unremittingly complicated due to infiltrating foreign armed groups (from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan) working alongside the regime to suppress movements. A study conducted by the Syrian Network for Human Rights on 5 July/2014[1], estimates that there are 35,000 fighters within these groups, in addition to the Islamic formations that appear to be fighting the current regime and have been placed on the list of international terrorist organizations (al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The official name for Syria is the Syrian Arab Republic; the official language is Arabic, and the majority of Syrians are Arab Muslims. Syria has a spectrum of ethnic diversity such as Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, Turkmens and others. This diversity is also present in religion, where different doctrines and religions are considered to be “religious minorities” such as Druze, Yezidi, different sects of Christianity, and others.

Syria has 185.180 divided into 14 governorates: Damascus, Damascus countryside,Kenitra , Dar'a,Sweida,Homs,Tartous,Latakia,Hama,Idleb,Aleppo,Rakka,Deir ez-Zor, and Hasaka. The following statistics published by the Central Bureau of Statistics on December 31 2011 show how Syrians are distributed based on gender and governorate:






Number of Household











Damascus Rural Area












































































During a workshop on the population in Syria, held on 13 February 2012 by the General Commission of Scientific Research, the Dean of the Higher Institute for Population Studies and Research stated that the current conditions in Syria - and since 2011 - have created challenges for researchers in the field. First, there is a need to review documents on Population Policy and their backlog. In addition, great research efforts are required to address demographic issues and problems arising from socio-economic changes in light of the changing demographics in Syria. These show signs of opening and widening demographics in governorates in Sweida, Tartous, Latakia and Damascus. A report compiled by a group of researchers from different research and academic backgrounds was presented at the workshop and revealed that as a repercussion of the current crisis in Syria the estimated number of residents in Syria in 2012 was only 18 million. The report noted that the number of Syrian residents who have left the country during the current crisis is estimated to be 3 million. In addition, during the period between 2011 and 2013 there was major internal migration in Syria as well as multiple, and possibly frequent, movement between governorates, as initial estimates point toward at least a third of the Syrian population having migrated to one or more locations from their original place of living.

The official website for the Central Bureau of Statistics [2] posted a research survey titled Project Report on the State Population in Syria in 2013. The Central Bureau of Statistics conducts the census survey in collaboration with the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs with the following goals:

  1.  Humanizing the current population condition and its main challenges into an integrated concept of development that includes economic, social and institutional conditions.
  2. Studying the effects of the crisis on the population and the related interactions in the period between 2011 and 2013, including geographical distribution of the population, demographic characteristics, economic situation, living conditions and social relations.
  3. General identification of the status of services and infrastructure, and productivity of related institutions
  4. Suggesting a population policy in an integrated developmental framework to overcome effects incurred by the crisis.


That study had not been published at the time of writing.Because  official institutes for statistics in Syria were absent, independent research organizations were established. An example is the ‘Syrian Center for Policy Research’, which publishes a series of periodic reports on the crisis and its effects on Syrian society for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and United Nations Development Program, in collaboration with the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Commissions for Regional Planning and International Planning in Syria. The report that monitored the second half of 2013 contained the following[3] information:

  • The population in Syria has decreased by 10.7% compared to what it was in 2010. Generally this is a result of the considerable increase of refugees and emigrants from Syria and, to a lesser extent, the number of deaths resulting from armed conflict.

  • The reconfiguration of the demographic map inside Syria has been profound, with migration of approximately 5.99 million people inside Syria up to the end of 2013. This represents 33% of the estimated population of Syrians within Syrian territories, even though more than 45% of Syria’s population were forced to leave their homes in search of relatively safe places and basic needs of living as result of continuous armed conflict.

  • More than 11 million people have lost their main income due to unemployment, which rose by 2.67 million during the conflict. Half of the workforce have become jobless, and 75% of the population live in poverty (20% of whom are living in extreme poverty).

Historical Perspective: Policies and Cultural Instruments

The Ministry of Culture in the Syrian Arab Republic was founded in 1958 during the unity between Syria and Egypt; we can consider this a dividing line between historic events.

The local community played[4]a key role in the cultural movement before the ministry was founded, as did the Syrian University which was a major cultural centre at that time, for Syria and all its neighbouring Arab countries. The medical Institute established in 1901 - followed by the Law School in 1913 -  was the nucleus foundation for “the Syrian University”, which was founded in 1923 to include both Medical and Law schools. In 1953, the University’s name was changed to “Damascus University” to include the Faculty of Literature and Human arts (opened in 1946) and College of Education (opened in 1953). Interestingly, one of the first art exhibitions in Syria was held in 1928 at the Syrian University in Damascus, with participants including artists and photographers such as Tawfiq Tariq, Saeed Tahseen, Michel Kirshai, Faez Al-Azem, Josephine Tajer and Mohammad Ali Al-Khayyat. The university continued to be an incubator for artists through collective and individual exhibitions.

A group of artists - including Salah Al Nashif who travelled to Italy in 1939 to study for three years - returned from Egypt and Italy after completing their higher education, and contributed to founding the Arab Arts Society in 1941 and the Syrian Arts Society in 1950. These artists taught in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Damascus University.

In 1950, the General-Directorate of Antiquities and Museums adopted the artistic movement. An annual exhibition was established, and it became the reference body for artists' affairs. Later on, the Directorate established a permanent exhibition and called it the Gallery of Modern Art. In 1958 the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance was established, and within its structure were created  a Directorate of Fine Arts, a Department of Acquisitions and Exhibitions, and a Department for Monuments and Statues.

The cultural forums[5], social associations, publishing houses, libraries and periodical cultural publications were key drivers behind the active writing and translation movement. From the early 1920s until the end of 1950s, cultural and literature leagues, clubs and associations contributed to growing the cultural community in Damascus. The first Arabic print press entered Aleppo in 1706 and Patriarch Athanasius III Dabbas used it to print "The Book of Psalms" in the same year. The first print house in Damascus, founded in 1855, was owned by Hanna Al Dumani and named after him.

Damascus is considered one of the richest eastern cities in acquiring books and founding libraries, along with Aleppo. The oldest library in Damascus dates to the nineteenth century and is located in the Ummayad mosque. There were nine other libraries spread around the city where people used to study and read[6]. This included private libraries that were successful due to the huge efforts of the owners, such as the libraries of Al Omaria, Abdallah Basha Al Azem, Sulayman Basha, Othman Al Kurdi, Al Khayateen, Al Edadiya, Al Shamsatiya, andAl Yagoshiya.[7] 

In Damascus, the first printed book came out almost half a century behind Aleppo’s first, when Aldomania press printed  the book "Prayers of Sheikh Abdul Ghani Al-Nabulsi" (1864). However the progress of typography was weak, with only 272 books having been printed in Syria by the end of the nineteenth century. The subjects of these were predominantly religion, literature, and language, with a few on philosophy, science, arts and sociology. Printing in Damascus developed in the 1930s, when schools began to spread and schoolbooks became necessary.  Arabic Language Assembly provided the market with heritage books, and a lot of different newspapers appeared. Publishing activity in its current sense started with The Arabic Bookshop, which was established in 1908 by Ahmad Obaid, who is considered the first master of publishers in Damascus. His work created a leap in bookshop operations, from printing and selling, to a publishing business.

In 1865, Damascus was first introduced to press media with Souria, the first state newspaper. Two years later, Souria was followed by Ghadir Al Phurat the state newspaper in Aleppo. Later on, more private newspapers started to appear; in 1870, Dimashq newspaper was issued in Damascus by Ahmad Izzat Pasha Al Abid, and in 1878 Al Shahba newspaper was founded in Aleppo by Al Kawakbi in cooperation with Hashim Al Attar. Newspapers continued to be issued periodically and drastically in most of the Syrian cities. During the Ottoman era, 25 newspapers and four magazines were issued in Aleppo, while 36 newspapers and nine magazines started in Damascus. Under the French Mandate, Damascus issued more than one hundred newspapers and magazines.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a noticeable new phenomenon of establishing intellectual societies and clubs. This brought famous cultural and artistic names and figures to the Syrian scene.  Founded in 1874, the first social club in Damascus was named “The Bond of Love Association”. This was followed by “The Historical Society” in 1875. Others were founded mainly in Damascus and Aleppo, including The Syrian Society, The Arab Club, The Arab Women Club, The Literary Association, The Political Cultural Symposium Association, Pen Inspiration Association, and The Youth Writers Association.

Artistically speaking, there were individual and group initiatives to form artists’ assemblies, clubs and teams like the experience of the Arab theater pioneer, Abu Khalil Al Kabbani, who established a theater to incorporate an elite group of actors, singers, chanters, players and dancers. His first show in Damascus was in 1871. In Homs, “The nice view” theater was founded by Muhammad Khalid Al Shalabi; and in 1914 the first music club in Syria - “The Oriental Music Club” - was founded by an artist named Shafik Shabib.

The proliferation of associations and forums was not limited to the French Mandate period, or the reign of Independence. Its roots go back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when the first scientific and literature association - known as The Syrian Association" - was founded in Beirut by a number of Syrian intellectuals and orientalists, such as Alyazaji, Butrus Al-Bustani and Michael Mashaka. The first associations appeared in Damascus in 1874 through the founding of the association "bond of love" which was a scientific rhetoric association. Following this, the number of associations began to increase. In 1875 the Association of History was founded; and in 1878 so too was the The Charitable Association for the Establishment of Schools and the Promotion of Knowledge.

Established in 1918 during the period of the Arab government, The Arab Club is one of the oldest clubs in Damascus. At the beginning of its establishment, the club’s role was to awaken national consciousness and gather the forces of struggle for the consolidation of independence. The club was closed after the French occupation. However, in 1936 the club was re-founded and contributed to social, literary and national activities.

In 1920 a number of Syrian women contributed to the establishment of The Ladies Literary Club, which was headed by the writer and journalist Marie Ajmi, the owner of the first Syrian women’s magazine – entitled Al-Arous, The Bride – issued in 1910. The club organized many activities, the most important of which was the ceremony held for writer May Zeyada when she visited in October 1922. This event was held in the Balour Crystal Palace in the neighborhood of Bab Touma in Damascus.

The Association of Literary League was established in 1921 (as reported by Mr. Samy Kayyali). First published in September 1921, the Association issued a magazine under its name, which was reportedly motivated by jealousy towards country's literature.  The association holds a weekly meeting in which each time one of its members delivers a lecture. The association did not last long and the French mandate authorities closed it.

  • In 1936 during philosophy classes for the eleventh grade students in "Tajheez El Banat" school, the idea of a secret forum was born. The Association of Women's Cultural Forum continued holding secret meetings in its member’s houses until it was publically announced in 1942 and got a license from authorities of the French mandate.

  • The Catholic Youth Club was founded Al Kassaa district in Damascus during the twenties of last century;. The club held a monthly cultural conference which icluded lectures and poetry nights. The club has also issued "Al Fekr" (The Itellect) magazine in which they published the monthly cultural conference activities.

  • The Cultural League of the Arab Medical Institute, which was founded by a group of students, in the early forties. This League was also known as the "Cultural Conference". The most famous founders were: Abdul Salam Al Ajili – Mohamed Al-Ashoury- Mounir AlHamamy- Faisal Al Sabagh and Aref Keyasa. The foremost activity of this League was to issue "Sabah" (Morning) Magazine. The magazine was issued by Abdel Ghany Alotry in Damascus during the forties.  The student Abdel Salam Al-Ajili published "Al Makama Al Sakhera", "Al Makama Al Tebeya", which became very popular in the cultural society, these writings were the beginning of satirical literature.

  • Al Liwaa Al Thaqafi" was one of the distinguished literature clubs in Damascus, founded in the late 1930' by a number of teachers and students from Iskenderun territory. The most famous founders are: Mr. Youssef Zakhour, the president and Mr. Zaki Al Arsouzy who was surrounded by a large number of friends and students. He gave political and cultural lectures, and wrote a number of books whose proceeds were allocated to this club.

  • Pen Inspired League: was founded in 1952. Some of the most famous members are: Mr. Tahseen Mirkhan the president, Abdallah Al Sabagh, the writer, Ezz El Deen Alkak, Said Morad and Raafat Alkordy. The event which has culminated the league activities was the ceremony held in 1954 on the occasion of the second anniversary for the creation of the association. A large number of writers, poets and intellectuals were invited as Hasseeb Kayali.

  • Story People League which was founded in 1956. Among its members were Eskandar Louka, Jean Alexan, Fouad Al Hakeem and Georges Doulbani.

  • League of the Youth Writers, founded in the mid-fifties of the last century. Some of its founding members: Nasr Al Deen Al Bahra, Said Mourad, Ahmed Al Ghafry, Nadia Khost, Soliman Zakareya, Hesham Al Nahaas. The objective of this League as mentioned in its founding statement "Members of the League believe in realism as a mode of expression concerning the continuous movement of life and reality, because they are consistent with the requirements of development forces in the society”. Said Al Jazaery opened the doors of his magazine "Al Nokkad" (The Critics) to the members of this League.

  • The League of Syrian Writers founded in the middle of 1950 was one of the most famous literature associations. It was, later, the nucleus of the Arab Writers Union. Some of the founding members were: Hanna Mina, Shawky Baghday, Said Hourany, Murad Al-Sabai, Salah Dohny, Mostafa Al Halaj, Shehada Al Khoury and Abdel Salam Oyoun Al Soud. One of the league members, In early August 1954, the League held a conference to pave the way for its conversion into "The League of Arab Writers".

  • The Association of the Arab Writers, a number of retired members of the Syrian Writers League, those who did not believe in all League’s goals and aspirations, created a literary conference naming it the "Association of the Arab Writers".

  • The Syrian Society for Arts is an artistic cultural association founded in 1950 and was based in Abu Rummana street. This Association played a prominent role in promoting arts and cultural movement by organizing regular lectures given by a number of writers, poets and artists such as Nizar Qabbani, Olfa Al Adlaby, Adham Ismail, Shawki Baghdadi, Mohammad Mehdi Al Gawahergy, Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Yafi, Dr. Sabah Kabbani and Najat Kassab Hassa.

  • Friends of Arts academy was established in the early 1950. The Academy invited writers, poets and intellectuals to give lectures to it’s members.

  • Cultural and Social Solidarity Association was founded in 1954 by Mr. Mohammed Rashid Al-Rashidi in his resedence, in "Al Mazraa" district. Some of the well known members were Said Houraniyyeh, Bashar al-Kadi, Said Murad, Haseeb Kayali, Mawaheb Kayali, Salah Kharboutli and Raafat Kurdish. The Association held several cultural conferences and participated in publishing a lot of books written by its members.

Moreover, a lot of rich cultural groups, conferences, workshops and forums were organized, such as the Cynics Group, Al Maamoun Seminar, the Social Circle for Graduates of Higher Institutes, Marie Ajami Salon, Zahra Al Abed Salon, Thouraya Al-Hafiz Saloun and the Literary Forum.

[1] Syrian Network for Human Rights 5 July 2014


Appendix 1- Cultural clubs, cultural & social societies; publishing houses, bookshops and magazines in Syria since 19th century.[4]

[5] Appendix 2- Case study- Socainah Forum.

[6] Joseph Alyas: Development of Syrian journalism in a hundred years, part 1, pg. 15

[7] The previous resource, pg. 28-29

Chapter published: 06-05-2016